By: Allan Wolper
Snow swept through New York’s neighborhoods, stranding emergency vehicles on unplowed streets. People were trapped in their homes. Garbage piled up on sidewalks, an invitation to the city’s rat population. It was Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s worst political moment. He blew it. All because he wouldn’t say where he was when one of the worst storms in New York history began strangling his city the day after Christmas.
Bloomberg didn’t even waver after The New York Times published a story with overwhelming circumstantial evidence that he had been in Bermuda at his warm-weather retreat when the flakes started falling.
The mayor did what high-profile politicians always seem to do when they’re asked to be accountable: invoke their right to privacy. Since the public is unsure about how much of a public official’s life should be off limits, the news media often steps back when politicians use the “P” word at a crowded news conference.
The story of New York’s missing mayor doesn’t have any of the usual issues that bedevil politicians: things like race, sex, religion, and conflict of interest.
It’s a tale of how the mayor stonewalled the New York media and got away with it. New York’s newspapers savaged Bloomberg’s snow cleanup efforts, and published editorials demanding he own up to being in Bermuda, but seemed to do very little to follow up on the Times story on his alleged escape to his Bermuda estate.
In fact, five weeks after the snow debacle, the story has gone away. Incredible, considering New York is the media capital of the world. The news operation with the obvious sources to nail the story is Bloomberg News. After all, the mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
But the Bloomberg News team that covered the Christmas weekend storm, mostly to gauge its economic impact on Wall Street, totally ignored the intense debate over the mayor’s whereabouts as 20 inches of snow closed in on New York.
Ty Trippet, a Bloomberg News spokesman, explained why:
“Since Bloomberg News began 20 years ago, we have eschewed reporting about ourselves other than what is said and done, and we summarize reporting about us that may be considered actionable or otherwise newsworthy, such as poll figures, legal challenges, and referendums. This extends to our coverage of the mayor, who founded the company.”
The stories Bloomberg News produced during the days after the blizzard and during a series of smaller snowstorms that followed suggest otherwise. The news service behaved as if City Hall had sent over a city editor to make certain the majority owner of its company wouldn’t get into trouble during any of his snow days. Like a parent protecting his delinquent child. And every story notes the mayor’s corporate connection to Bloomberg News.
As if to prove that point.
Bloomberg News focused only on the mayor’s public response to the controversy over the snow removal. It highlighted investigations into charges by a city councilman who said sources in the sanitation department told him they staged a slowdown to get even with the mayor for demoting supervisors, laying off workers, and cutting back on overtime.
It did not follow up on a New York Times story that shot holes in the councilman’s allegations against the sanitation department. It never mentioned the press criticism of the mayor or Stephen Goldsmith, the deputy mayor for operations, for not calling a snow emergency.
That pronouncement would have kept cars off the streets and opened up emergency lanes. Goldsmith oversees the sanitation department and is in charge of snow removal. But he was in his townhouse in Washington, D.C. when the storm started. A fact Bloomberg News kept from its readers.
The nastiest piece on the alleged sanitation slowdown by Bloomberg News was produced by Kevin Hassett, one of its columnists. He wrote that the sanitation department’s alleged slowdown “may have contributed” to the death of a newborn baby in Brooklyn and an elderly woman in Queens.
The column was distributed worldwide. It was republished on RoyalGazette.com, the website for the only daily newspaper in Bermuda. At first, the paper wasn’t particularly interested in Bloomberg’s comings and goings.
“We are a very locally focused paper,” said Bill Zuill, editor of The Royal Gazette. “We don’t doorstep people,” he told me. “We leave people alone. They come here to rest. That is the Bermuda way.”
Bryan Darby, news director of VSB News, an NBC-TV and BBC affiliate, was even more dismissive of the snowstorm saga.
“It was not our issue,” Darby said in a telephone interview. “The mayor’s house is a long way from where we are. We wouldn’t be able to peek in his window to see if he were there. No one would be able to get near his plane. Maybe if The New York Times offered us a thousand dollars we might have done it. Poor old Bloomberg. That was wise to be here, if he were here. All that snow.”
But maybe that mystery will be soon be resolved. I received an e-mail early Feb. 2 from Owain Johnston-Barnes, a reporter with The Royal Gazette, with this note: “At this point we have been able to confirm that it was his (Bloomberg’s) plane on the island on Christmas weekend but not who was actually on the plane.”
It certainly would be interesting if the little island media in Bermuda beat out the Manhattan mainland to the Bloomberg Christmas Story.
Allan Wolper, professor of journalism at Rutgers University, is the host of “Conversations with Allan Wolper, a podcast on WBGO.org, an NPR affiliate in the New York area. He has won more than 50 journalism prizes. His ethics columns in E&P have been honored by The National Press Club and the New York chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.